Parents with Mental Health Problems

When one parent becomes mentally ill, it becomes difficult to explain the circumstances to the child. The child may also have a hard time making sense of what is happening to their parent’s behaviour. When this happens, the child and the parents can become unsupported and isolated. This would only increase their anxiety and distress in their family. It is therefore important to support them.

Many children have experienced growing up with their parents suffering from a mental health problem. These parents have either a mild or temporary problem but some of them suffer from persistent mental health issues or substance and alcohol abuse. Parents who suffer from long term illnesses could suffer schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or some other form of personality disorder. There are approximately 50-66% of parents who suffer from a severe case of mental health problem, with one or more child under the age of 18. This is equivalent to 17,000 young people or children in UK.

Mental illness and parenting

A lot of parents could feel pressured to become good parents alongside their other roles like workers or partners. Parents or adults who suffer from mental health problems may find it hard to balance these roles. They may also be having trouble in:

  • Parenting skills due to lack of confidence
  • Become unusually relaxed when they are with their children
  • Disciplines their child harshly
  • Cannot identify their children’s needs

Due to their illness, the parents would have to stay in the hospital for long periods of time. This causes instability in their children’s lives and their relationships. If the parent wants to avoid this situation, he would think that he should put aside his treatment and put his children’s needs first. This may also mean that he may quit some of his medication because some medication causes someone to think unclearly.

Mental illness and the children

Studies indicate that children who have parents with severe and long term mental illness have more psychological, emotional and behavioural problems than the young people in the population. This can be explained because these children may have inherited the genes from their parents which make them susceptible to mental illnesses. But social factors like poverty due to their parent’s mental problems can also affect the children’s mental health. These children also become reluctant to seek help because they feel that they are being stigmatized because of their parent’s situation. The children could be taken away from their parents and so the children would become their parent’s carers. This situation makes the children lose out educationally and socially. It has been estimated that 50,000 young children have become carers for their family member who suffers from mental health problems, whether the problems is mild or severe.

Protecting the children’s mental health

Many children who have parents suffering from a mental health problem endure negative effects of this situation. There are certain factors that can help protect the child’s mental health while being carers for their mentally ill parents. These are the following:

  • To be supported by some agencies that has a ‘whole family’ approach in supporting the children, their parents and their other family members.
  • To be supported by teachers, adults, their friends and their relatives
  • To have another caregiver who is not suffering from a mental health problem
  • To be parented consistently
  • To be affiliated with faith communities.

Social support helps children to cope up with their parents’ mental health problems. Young children who serve as carers’ have groups that support other children. These groups also give the children time to enjoy themselves.

Practical support for children

  • The children should be informed clearly of their parents’ situation so that it the children would not feel anxious. The internet is a way to increase the children’s worries. This is also an outlet where the children could find information about the stigma of their family situation.
  • Barnardo produces information for those who work with children who have parents with mental health problems.
  • Making a routine fact sheet with the children and their parents can help prepare the children for times when their parents would be absent. It details the child’s daily or weekly routine as well as their likes and dislikes. Should the other caregivers follow the fact sheet, it could give the children a continuous sense of security. It also gives the parents the control and the sense that they are still able to contribute to their child’s well being.
  • The parents could write what they think is helpful or not to prepare for the difficult times ahead. The children could carry the information in their minds which means that they assume the role as caregivers for their parents without seeking help from anyone else outside the family. To be able to share the needs of the parents to an adult whom they trust decreases the likelihood that the child becomes his parents’ carers. This also reduces the guilt which the parents may feel when they think that they have become a burden to their child.

When the child will visit his parents in an in-patient division, they should be explained of what they are about to see so that it could reduce the child’s anxiety. The details what the building looks like or who works in there or how some of the patients behave should be explained carefully.